‘It’s been three days now, since they’re gone.’
‘Well, not quite,’ Benny corrects me, reaching for my wrist to look at the time. ‘Assuming they got lost at twelve thirty, it’ll be three days in four hours.’
I yank my hand out his hold and stick it into the pocket of my coat.
‘Are you really that concerned, Merle?’ he asks.
I blow air out of my nose, running one hand down my ponytail. ‘Well, a lot could have happened, especially since the chip card of Mr. Miller’s phone was found near the museum.’
‘But like what?’ His eyes challenge me.
‘Like...someone could have attacked them or stolen his phone. The Was it your idea to look for them or not?’
‘Yeah, I guess it was, but only because it’s the right thing to do.’
Noah’s lips are tight and his eyes are fixed alone on the forest floor as he trudges wordlessly behind us. ‘What’s your opinion?’ I ask. ‘Is there a reason to be worried or not?’
His blonde head jerks upward in surprise, almost as if he hadn’t been listening. I knew he had. ‘Mine? Uh…’ his eyes dart back and forth between Benny and me. ‘I suppose so.’
‘See?’ I tell Benny, like the statement hadn’t been obvious in the first place. ‘The police tried tracking their phones too.’
He shrugs and shakes his head. ‘But what more can we do than look for them ourselves?’
‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘I’m just saying a lot could have happened.’
For a few minutes only the crunching of leaves and the snapping of twigs under our boots are to be heard.
‘And I’m just saying that worrying too much about it won’t bring our teachers back, okay? There’s no point.’
I glare at him. ‘Do you even know what worry is, as happy as you are? Benny, you are not to decide over my emotions, okay? You’re not my doctor.’
‘Exactly, I’m your friend. That’s because I know that you are feeling like shit and I am trying to help you. Would you prefer that I ignore you?’
‘I’d rather you show just a bit more empathy and be a bit more affected by the fact that Mr. Andersen and Mr. Miller could be lying somewhere wounded or dead after being missing for three days.’
Benny sighs. ‘Oh please, if you would stop exaggerating just once. And besides, it’s not quite three days yet.’
I scoff and bury my hands even deeper in my pockets. ‘There is no point in arguing with you.’ I decide to give him the silent treatment.
‘Of course not. See, Merle, I’m sorry if I am a more positively thinking person than you, because I am convinced they are alive and healthy and that we will find them soon.’
I abandon my silence. ‘Positive thinking is what you call your selfishness? The truth is that you don’t care about our teachers at all. All you care about is being the supportive and strong one.’
‘Oh, so there’s something wrong with being there for you?’
‘How are you there for me?!’ I can feel tears rise in my throat so I gulp twice and blink preventively.
‘I can see that you’re feeling bad,’ he answers surprisingly calm, ‘so I’m trying to reassure you that we’re already doing the right thing. There’s nothing more we can do.’
‘That doesn’t make me feel understood though.’
‘It’s because I don’t understand. I don’t get why you let the situation pull you down so much instead of being… proud of what we’re doing.’
‘You don’t care.’
‘Seriously, Merle? I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t care.’
‘You only care about the running-away-from-home, lying-to-our-parents, sleeping-in-a-tent-in-the-forest, being-on-a-mission, having-an-adventure part.’
Benny stares at me, his look vulnerable and angry at the same time. ‘Oh yeah?’
I sigh, knowing that he’d really be hurt if I said anything wrong. ‘Let’s stop arguing. For Noah’s sake.’
Again Noah looks up from the ground like he hadn’t been paying attention, which was dishonest but nice in a way.
Benny’s look is dark and fixed on the distance as he presses his lips together. I can tell that he is still thinking of something smart to say.
‘I’m sorry if I went too far, Benny.’ There’s more I would like to say but I tell myself not to.
Still no reply, but then he sighs and forces a smile. ‘Let’s forget about it.’ He hugs me and I can feel my chin tremble a bit. ‘I’m hungry,’ he adds as he lets go.
I slip the colossal orange backpack off my shoulders and set it on the ground with a thump. ‘What do you want?’ I crouch down to untie the Ziploc baggie with the food. ‘Raisin bread or cereal?’
‘I also brought food, you know?’ he laughs over-casually.
‘Me too,’ says Noah.
‘Well, that’s good, but now I already unpacked mine.’ I hold up the bag and Benny takes out one package of Organic Oats with a grateful nod.
As he pours the little brown flakes into the palms of Noah’s and my hands, I can’t help but think about the fight that Benny pretends never happened. Although the rain stopped, the ground is still muddy so we stand in silence while eating our cereal. Awkwardly and by coincidence, the three of us sigh almost at the same time.
‘It’s five past twelve,’ I declared for the second time. ‘We need to head back now.’
‘But we barely wrote anything down. We only wrote down the burning of the Reichstag in 1933. That can’t be it. This memorial is too confusing for me.’ Benny complained.
‘You know that Mr. Miller can be really strict.’
‘Don’t worry,’ his tone is annoyed. ‘And honestly, I think the teachers would be happier to see that we worked hard and wrote a lot down than if we were punctual but basically did nothing. I mean, this shows that we sacrifice our break for our report, that we take it seriously.’
‘What do you think, Noah?’ I asked.
‘You decide,’ he replied plainly.
‘If you want to show our teachers that we worked hard and wrote a lot down, we’ll have to hurry up.’
‘I would be able to work faster if you’d stop telling us what time it is,’ Benny raises both eyebrows and begins reading a chart on the wall.
‘But the report is due next Friday, meaning we have over a week’s time to Google all this at home.’
‘Come here please, Noah,’ Benny ordered nonchalantly, pointing at the chart. ‘Can you write this down? This is about the enabling act.’ Apparently he didn’t want to hear what I had said.
I remained passive as I saw them working for a while, before bringing myself to join in. At twelve past twelve, when we had only written down a few words, I finally got the boys to go back to the entrance with me.
I was so distracted with formulating an excuse for the teachers in my head that I hardly noticed the strained atmosphere.
‘Where were you?’ An ultra-thin, slightly dimwitted guy named Dennis Sanders accused us.
‘Working?’ Benny opposed defensively. ‘What do you care?’
‘Mr. Miller and Mr. Andersen are gone,’ a mousy-looking girl explained hastily.
‘They went looking for you,’ another girl said.
For a moment I wanted to say something like ‘I told you so’, but there was a queasy feeling at the back of my throat. ‘Both of them? Isn’t it illegal to leave the class alone?’ They all looked at me helplessly.
‘I think they went outside,’ the girl continued.
‘That’s strange,’ I shared a fretful glance with Noah and Benny, who for once looked just as insecure.
‘As if we’d go outside to collect information for our report,’ Benny agreed.
‘What now?’ I asked. ‘Should we just…wait?’
Rain falls from the sky in buckets, mud sloshing under our boots, the splashing around us so loud that Benny has to shout to be understood. ‘Shit, it’s freezing!’
‘I’m soaked!’ I shout back. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘Sure that your backpack doesn’t have a rain cover?’
‘Yes, it’s like fifty years old!’ I squint to prevent rain falling in my eyes.
‘The trees won’t shelter us much! We can set up the tent and wait until the rain stops! You know, before all of your things are wet!’
‘Won’t it take way too long to set it up, though?’ I look at Noah, but he’s pulling his hood way over his face so it’s impossible to see his expression. ‘Noah?’ Water drips off my eyebrows.
‘Let’s try!’ he yells, and I’m almost surprised that he has an opinion. His words seem to have an effect because Benny nods, takes off his backpack and opens his rain cover just as much as to take the dark green bag with the tent out.
‘Help me, let’s hurry!’ he orders, wiping the dark, wet curls from his eyes. Noah sneezes.
‘The tent is waterproof, right?’ I ask, helping Noah arrange the poles. My fingers feel like sticks of ice, and it’s almost impossible to bend them. Benny nods. ‘How is this supposed to look when it’s finished?’ I wring out my dripping ponytail.
‘It’s relatively easy. Basically, it’s just those two long ones bent over each other, then these two are for making a roof over the entrance.’ As he speaks, he begins threading one pole through the tent’s green plastic. Noah rushes to help him with the second one while I look for the pegs.
‘The pegs won’t stick in the ground because the mud is too squishy!’ I say, but Benny reassures me that it doesn’t matter.
In the flash of three minutes, the tent is set up. Kicking off the gross boots, we crawl inside, dragging our backpacks behind. The drumming of the angry rain above our heads seems louder than it was outside. Noah sneezes again.
Quickly, we take off our wet jackets and dump them in one corner of the tent before putting on dry clothes. Benny rolls out his camping mat and slips into his sleeping bag to warm up. It looks so cozy that Noah and I do the same.
‘Well, this is a great first day,’ Benny grumbles, looking frostbitten. The color of his lips is frightening close to that of his purple Lakers hoodie. ‘What time is it?’
I check my watch. ‘Almost four thirty.’
‘Let me get this straight,’ Mom said when we had dropped Benny off at his house. ‘The teachers went looking for Benny, another boy and you because you weren’t back from your group work at the appointed time.’ She eyed me sharply.
‘Yes?’ I put on an innocent smile.
‘And the teachers didn’t come back, so you called the police?’ she speaks slowly, almost dubiously.
‘That’s what happened.’ I stared out of the windshield, suddenly very interested in the pattern on the sidewalk.
‘But that’s terrible, assuming something probably happened to them,’ Mom turned the steering wheel around and drove into our street.
I nodded. ‘Someone said they went to look for us outside.’
‘Outside?’ She wheeled backwards into parking.
‘That’s what they said.’ I got out of the car and slammed my door.
‘What did the police say?’ Mom locked the car.
‘The officer said they’d try to track their phones and that they’d drive around the area. He was the one who told us to go home.’
‘That’s your phone ringing,’ Mom informed me as she unlocked the door.
‘Crap,’ I ran past her and into the kitchen, where I had forgotten it that morning. ‘Merle Fontaine?’ I asked immediately, not having the time to read Benny’s name in the display.
‘Bonjour, Mademoiselle,’ I recognized his low voice.
‘You could have waited ten more seconds,’ I said. ‘I am just getting home.’
‘We need to do something,’ he announced decidedly.
‘Meaning?’ I sneaked out of the kitchen and went up the stairs, just in case Mom was listening.
‘We need to look for Mr. Miller and Mr. Andersen.’
I felt a bit overwhelmed, although I had considered this myself. Benny knew how to get me with doing good things for others, but I was mischievous about his own intentions. ‘I thought you don’t care.’
‘Of course I care,’ he sounded hurt. ‘And you know it’s our duty. We owe them.’
‘That’s kind of ridiculous. The police are doing their job, you know? And as if our parents would let us go on a weekday.’
‘We can wait until Saturday—in two days. If they aren’t back by then, presuming they aren’t in school tomorrow, we’ll look for them. You have to help me, Merle.’